On Scientific Ignorance

Consumers are often woefully ignorant of basic facts about food and agriculture.  For example, in this paper I published with Brandon McFadden, we report multiple lines of evidence that most people know very little about genetically engineered food.  When scientific names are used for food ingredients (e.g., sodium chloride instead of salt), perceptions of naturalness and safety substantially decline.  A typical response to these sorts of findings is, "we need to spend more on consumer education." Such a statement is an implicit endorsement of the knowledge deficit model - it is a view that "experts" convey the information, consumers accept it and update their beliefs accordingly.

Dan Kahan's work on cultural cognition had gone a long way toward dismantling the knowledge-deficit model of how consumers change opinions.  His work shows that "more education" doesn't necessarily lead to convergent beliefs; rather, it seems we filter information through our group identities.  I recently ran across a book chapter Kahan wrote, and thought I'd share the abstract as it does a good job describing why consumers (and scientists) may not be fully informed and how we might change their minds on controversial issues.

It is impossible to make sense of persistent controversy over certain forms of decision-relevant science without understanding what happens in the vastly greater number of cases in which members of the public converge on the best available evidence without misadventure. In order to live well — or just to live, period — individuals must make use of much more scientific information than any (including a scientist) is in a position to comprehend or verify for him- or herself. They achieve this feat not by acquiring even a rudimentary level of expertise in any of the myriad forms of science essential to their well-being but rather by becoming experts at recognizing what science knows — at identifying who knows what about what, at distinguishing the currency of genuine scientific understanding from the multiplicity of counterfeit alternatives. Their rational recognition of valid science, moreover, is guided by recourse to cues that pervade their everyday interactions with other non-experts, whose own behavior convincingly vouches for the reliability of whatever scientific knowledge their own actions depend on. Cases of persistent controversy over decision-relevance science don’t stem from defects in public science comprehension; they are not a result of the failure of scientists to clearly communicate their own technical knowledge; nor are they convincingly attributable to orchestrated deception, as treacherous as such behavior genuinely is. Rather such disputes are a consequence of one or another form of disruption to the system of conventions that normally enable individuals to recognize valid science despite their inability to understand it. To preempt such disruptions and to repair them when they occur, science must form a complete understanding of the ordinary processes of science recognition, and democratic societies must organize themselves to use what science knows about how ordinary members of the public come to recognize what is known to science.